Warning Sign by Robert Couse-Baker https://flic.kr/p/daYemu (CC BY 2.0)

Warning Sign by Robert Couse-Baker https://flic.kr/p/daYemu (CC BY 2.0)


Beware the Unintended Consequences: Some Warning Signs for Canada from the Australian Government Battle With Facebook

Last year, the Australian government presented Google and Facebook with an ultimatum: if the companies wanted to continue to allow users to link to news articles, they would be required to compensate news organizations. The Australian plan called for the creation of a mandated code that would create a process to determine the price to be paid for the links. Facebook’s response made it clear that if that was the choice – links with mandated payments or no links – it would choose the latter and block Australian news sharing from its service. While some described this as a threat (including Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault) or a bluff, it turns out the company was serious.

I have previously written that there is much to criticize about Facebook, but I don’t think that complying with the Australian legal framework by choosing to stop linking to news articles is one of them. Notwithstanding condemnations from the officials such as Guilbeault, the reality is that Facebook doesn’t post full articles and the only links that appear are those submitted by its users. It maintains that news article sharing simply isn’t a significant part of its service, noting that it only constitutes four percent of content and that the vast majority of users will not be significantly affected. Further, it argues that the links to the news articles were already worth hundreds of millions to publishers (all provided at no cost) and that further payments are unnecessary. As I’ve noted in examinations of the social media practices at the Toronto Star and Postmedia, both organizations regularly post the majority of their articles directly on Facebook, presumably because they benefit from increased traffic and advertising revenue.

Indeed, while politicians such as Bloc MP Martin Champoux tell the House of Commons that “if journalists didn’t work so hard, there would be nothing to share on social media. There would be no Facebook, or Google, or Twitter”, Facebook’s actual data suggests this simply isn’t the case and the articles obviously remain online at their original source. The social media giant has certainly captured a big slice of the digital advertising market, but that ultimately has very little to do with the availability of news articles on its site.

My initial view is therefore that Facebook’s approach is an understandable response to government policy. In fact, governments enact policies all the time – particularly tax policies – with the expectation that companies will respond. For example, lower tax policies may be designed to encourage investment, while higher taxes are recognized as risking reduced investment or corporate flight. That doesn’t make those policies right or wrong, but it does mean that there are consequences to policy decisions. Australia decided it wanted to force Facebook to pay a licence fee if it featured links. Facebook simply responded that it would no longer offer the links. Hardly the stuff worthy of condemnation.

As I said to Reuters, there are no winners in this situation – media organizations lose traffic and revenue, Facebook downgrades the value of its service to at least some of its users, and the risk of greater dissemination of low-value information increases. But the bigger picture is that this incident points to several potential unintended consequences that should not be overlooked.

First, it provides an important reminder of the risk of content over-blocking that comes from government creating liability for content posted by users. In this case, the liability is financial liability, but the principle is the same: create a framework where companies will block content and more than you think will be blocked. Facebook’s implementation of the news sharing block has troublingly resulted in the blocking of non-news stories too, including government information, weather, and non-profit organization pages. This is presumably what Guilbeault calls “highly irresponsible”, even though the inadvertently blocked sites are still available online since the Internet is more than just Facebook. Indeed, if governments think their only way of communicating important issues such as vaccination information is through Facebook that is a bigger issue in need of addressing (and for which the blocking may be a blessing in disguise).

Facebook says this was a mistake and that it is working to fix the over-blocking. Yet this should not come as a surprise. It isn’t that Facebook is particularly bad at content blocking, it is that experience suggests that blocking mandates invariably result in blocking good content alongside the bad. Over-blocking occurred years ago when Telus tried to block a single website and instead blocked hundreds in a well-known net neutrality violation, it arises when governments use copyright to require website blocking (as was raised during Bell’s proposed site blocking system), and it is a consequence of creating liability for third party content that pressures sites to proactively remove content. There is unquestionably a need to ensure that sites remove illegal content, but the calls to eliminate safe harbour rules for Internet sites bring an unintended consequence that will likely result in legal content being blocked alongside illegal content.

Second, I fear this could further push government to treat the Internet – or at least large Internet services – as the equivalent to cable television with legislated content mandates. The Canadian government is already racing to establish legal requirements to block content with Guilbeault going so far as to suggest that it could even include “hurtful” comments. In other words, the blocking requirements may well extend beyond unlawful content into what many are describing as “lawful but awful” content. Further, this incident points to the possibility of mandated carriage requirements as well. Much like cable television, could the government use the CRTC to require Facebook to feature links to  Canadian content (and then pay for the privilege of linking to that content)? In an escalating battle between governments and the Internet companies, it seems like a distinct possibility.

Third, this incident provides an important reminder that independent and smaller media will bear the biggest brunt of these policies. The reality is that the Australian battle really pits Facebook against Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. In other words, giant vs. giant. In Canada, the large media companies such as Postmedia and Torstar are the most vocal lobbyists on this issue, but smaller, independent media have already indicated that they do not support the News Media Canada lobbying campaign and want the benefit of links from social media services.

Guilbeault has seemingly been relishing the chance to battle the “web giants.” This week he even indicated that market-based solutions were unacceptable, warning that companies could change their minds years later. That will be news to Canadian services such as Village Media, which has already reached agreement with Google as part of its Showcase product. The larger ones are holding off striking deals, presumably on the basis that they hope that Guilbeault will legislate a better deal. But if the government follows through with its legislated plans, it could create enormous harm for independent Canadian media.

It is remarkable to see a government minister suggest that Canada needs to legislate licences for linking because an Internet company might not voluntarily enter into a licence agreement sometime in the future. That kind of “government knows best” may seem like a political winner today, but as this week’s events remind us, it also brings the prospect of content over-blocking, harm to independent media, and Canadians losing access to services they value because a government prioritized scoring political points over good policy.


  1. Pingback: Some Warning Signs for Canada From the Australian Government’s Battle With Facebook — Pixel Envy

  2. Pretty much echoing the same points on my side of things. I fear that Guilbeault will become further motivated in tabling his link tax bill. Facebook will logically respond by saying, “Fine, you want to charge for linking too, same response to you too” and delete the news feed in Canada.

    The problem is that reporters like me will see the entire Facebook presence deep sixed. I’m firmly opposed to this concept for all the obvious reasons, but I’ll be on the receiving end of Facebook’s response anyway because the law is across the board for all news – not just the big publishing corporations.

    I’m grateful that I chose to diversify my news site to also include information (have been doing this for more than a year now). Still, I’m seeing the impending situation and all I can do is say, “Oh, this is going to hurt.”

  3. This is a whole new way to look at the situation from what I’ve heard so far, and does make sense.
    The overblocking will be probably more than we can imagine as most likely it will be done by algorithms the way it is now – and we all know how successful that has been. I had a video of happy, enthusiastic pets greeting their owners when they returned from work taken down for “explicit sexual content”. Asking to have a human look at it didn’t result in any change that I was ever made aware of.
    But especially with these past two governments that we’ve had, I have been made depressingly aware that Ottawa is most likely to choose the least constructive and productive choice in any given question and then gallop off, virtue-signaling flags flying high.

    • I’ve been following the link tax debate for some time. When Spain tried to pull this stunt years ago, Google simply shut down Google News in the country. I’ve personally been pointing out that this aspect of aggregators and platforms ditching news altogether for quite some time. News, for the aggregators and platforms, is a small part of their overall business. Cutting news out of the picture is only going to be a minor bump in the road for them. For those working in the news, it can be a significant and even fatal blow to their business. This is why Global, CBC, Toronto Star, etc. are all freaking out right now. Facebook decided that they’ll simply allow history to repeat itself and Big Publishing is seeing their plan going sideways long before the bill to introduce the link tax is even tabled here in Canada. I’ll give CBC credit for at least attempting to muddy the waters by lumping other debates about Facebook into the picture, but others weren’t that smart in hiding their motives.

      From my perspective, this whole debate is an exercise in doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. The only logical move to make at this point is for the government to admit that they might have jumped into this debate without reviewing all the facts in this matter and that they’ll step back and reassess things. Unfortunately, that is an unlikely scenario.

      (Looks like my attempt to post that comment disappeared into the ether. Reposted in the event something went weird with the session)

  4. If I was in the audience at one of these discussions, I’d be the heckler in the back saying “there is a reason why it’s called ‘the web’ and not ‘the strand’.”

  5. One possibility is mandate a minimum of independent, non contracted news service to appear on any news page say Google News. It should be so or all news will be from contracted news outlet only bypassing all others.

    • I’m not seeing what difference this makes. Big Publishing/Murdoch is after a free lunch. Mandating Google News to have journalists won’t convince Big Publishing/Murdoch that this helps at all, so they’ll never go for it. Sure, it’ll be great for the few journalists that would get hired, but this would also further entrench Google’s position as a dominant player. Further, Google never set out to be a publisher in the first place. They aren’t a publisher and being a publisher is added liability for them. No one involved in this debate would ever go for this and it’s difficult to see what it solves in the first place.

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  7. It’s really unseemly seeing The Star and The Sun jump in bed with The Liberals in an attempt to gang-bang Facebook.

    Newspapers are hurting, but social media is not to blame. Newspapers used to be the go-to source for classified ads, sports scores, weather forecasts, movie reviews, fashion tips, recipes, and a myriad of other information. Not anymore. Readers have abandoned newspapers to get this information on their phones from Kijiji, TSN, Rotten Tomatoes, The Weather Network, and thousands of other sites.

    Newspapers need to restructure their operations (drop sports coverage, etc) to address the new competitors. Selling their independence to the government in return for link fee legislation will not stop the loss of readers to competitors. All it does is give the government a big stick to keep newspapers inline.

  8. Imagine Google and FB signing deals with Torstar, G&M and NP. All the biggies would be in bed together and would need no one else. An awful outcome really.

    There are still lots of people relying on ‘news’ articles which are not snippets or TV newscasts. With so many newspapers on a paywall, they are relying on the free news curated by G or FB algorithms.

    The proposed solution is far better than the government throwing money at newspapers and is the solution for many countries like France (already implemented) and soon Australia.

  9. Leave it to Michael Geist to side with mega-corporate blackmail and brownshirt tactics in this dispute. It’s amazing how linertarianism always somehow ends up on the side of corporate oligarchies with their illuory “freedoms.” Michael Geist, the Rand Paul of Canada.

    • libertarianism.

    • So why do our saintly news organizations and our morally superior government want to profit by taking tainted money from such evil corporations?

      Also, keep channeling your inner Trump; it’s such a good look.

      • Uh, duh, talking money from evil corporations is better than letting them keep it. Man, people here are such dolts. Is this the best you can do?

        • We get it, you hate the Internet and the free market. Fox News execs needs another private island and it needs to come at the expense of the open Internet.

          • Facebook is the free market? Man, you really have drunk all the kool aid. And I don’t imagine fox news is in favour of taxing facebook. Libertarianism = oligarchy, it’s pretty simple. All the sheep say “we’re free, no one tells us what to do”, but they all look the same and makes the same noises and move in large herds in the same direction. While filling facebook’s pockets. Dontcha know, you’re not the consumer, you’re the product.

          • “Facebook is the free market?”

            Never said that and your dumber than a sack of rocks if you think Facebook is the internet.

            “And I don’t imagine fox news is in favour of taxing facebook.”

            They are and it’s well documented News Corp has been behind the push to tax links in Australia. I’d encourage you to do a little research, but I somehow doubt you’re capable of that.

          • hey, learn a little English. It ain’t “your dumber”, it’s “you’re dumber”. Just sayin’ . . . dummy.

        • Why do you have to insult everyone who disagrees with you? Is it because you worked in the cultural sector where anti-social and entitled behavior is tolerated and even encouraged (Weinstein, Cosby, Trump, Allen, Polanski, Bieber, Lauer, Lohan, Spacey, etc)?

          • that’s odd, personally I took “channel your inner Trump” to be an insult, and rather a non sequitur (look it up).

  10. Klais Last says:

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